One of the most often complained about “bad guys” in the environmental battle is plastic bags. You know the ones – you get them at grocery stores, pharmacies and just about anywhere that you buy, well, anything. Environmentalists say that plastic bags cause pollution both in their production and as landfill waste (or floating in an ocean) after they’re discarded. Pro-bag lobbyists point out the many “environmentally-friendly” uses for plastic bags (we’ll get to those at the end of this article.) So what are the facts behind plastic bags? It’s a lot more complicated than just black or white, but here are some things to keep in mind.

We found the following facts on

According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually.  (Estimated cost to retailers: $4 billion)

Only 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.

Industry figures show 90% of all grocery bags are plastic.

Plastic bags are made of polyethylene which is a petroleum product.  Production contributes to air pollution and energy consumption.

It takes 1000 years for polyethylene bags to break down.

The amount of petroleum used to make 1 plastic bag would drive a car about 11 meters.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade- breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways.  They then enter the foodweb when animals accidently ingest them.

86% of all known species of sea turtles have had reported problems of entanglement or ingestion of marine debris.

Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die each year by ingesting plastic bags.  Not only that, these poor animals suffer a painful death.  The plastic wraps around their intestines or they choke to death.

Less than 5 percent of US shoppers use canvas, cotton, or mesh bags.  Please change that number by choosing reusable bags when you shop.

Ways To Decrease the Plastic Bag Impact

Of course, the most obvious way to decrease the impact of plastic bags is simply not to use them. Opt for reusable bags. In fact, in some countries – and even some parts of the United States – disposable plastic bags aren’t even legal. It just goes to show that living without disposable plastic bags is possible!

Of course, there’s always another side. points out the environmental strong points of plastic bags. Now, it does not take much effort to figure out that is a website run by a pro-plastic bag lobby (those became fairly common when the State of California tried to ban plastic bags). However, they do raise some points that are worth mentioning.

Plastic Bags Are More Eco-Friendly Than Paper Bags: Depending on your metric, this is somewhat true. Plastic bags create more pollution and chemical offset, but they do use fewer resources than paper bags.

Plastic Bags Get Reused: The argument here is that most people reuse their disposable plastic bags for other trash disposal. We’re not actually sure that that theory stacks up when you look at the raw number of pollution issues tied to plastic bags, but it is something to …consider.

Plastic Bags Can Be Recycled: This part is absolutely true. There’s nothing not recyclable about a plastic bag and many places offer plastic bag recycling. To a degree, the pollution caused by plastic bags is as much about irresponsible consumer behavior as it is about anything else. But that is true of almost all environmental problems!

So, while plastic bags are unlikely to become illegal in the United States any time soon, there are many things that we can do and encourage others to do that will decrease the imprint of plastic bags on the planet. Using recyclable and reusable bags, recycling the plastic bags that you do use and working with community groups to understand the impact of plastic bags are just a few.

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Photo: Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr